Exclusive GPs are facing hundreds of complaints to the GMC over their prescribing every year, with the vast majority being thrown out without action being taken, a Pulse investigation has revealed.
Data uncovered from Freedom of Information requests to the GMC showed that a total of 1,096 complaints concerning allegations of ‘irresponsible or inappropriate prescribing’ were made against GPs over the period 2012 to 2015.
However, almost 800 – three-quarters of all complaints – were closed with no action whatsoever, while a further 100 were closed with only advice issued.
GP leaders said this amounted to a ‘scandalous’ waste of time over ‘banal’ complaints, while medico legal experts called for a review of the system to ensure unsubstantiated complaints were dealt with locally.
The investigation showed that, of the 1,096 allegations made against GPs over the four-year period, the GMC concluded 792 (72%) without action and 119 (11%) with no action, just advice.
The figures were fairly consistently spread over the four years, with around 250 complaints made each year and similar proportions needing no action.
The complaints that were investigated included non-specific allegations of GPs having prescribed ‘inappropriately’ or ‘irresponsibly’ or ‘the wrong medication’. Others included claims GPs had prescribed:
- cream instead of drops
- tablets instead of liquid formulation
- cocodamol after patients had experienced constipation
- ‘outside’ or ‘contrary to’ current guidelines
- delayed or no antibiotics
- following assessment over the telephone or by a nursing colleague.
There were also allegations of ‘overprescribing’ antibiotics, misspelling a drug name and administering flu vaccine containing bovine products to a Jehovah’s witness patient.
GPC negotiator Dr Dean Marshall said that large number of baseless allegations ‘seems a scandalous waste of everyone’s time and money’ and warned that ‘any referral to the GMC is incredibly stressful for a doctor even when ultimately there is no case to answer’.
Dr Marshall added: ‘I wonder how many doctors have given up practice as a result of a referral to the GMC that is ultimately thrown out.’
Dr Pallavi Bradshaw, senior medicolegal adviser at Medical Protection said: ‘The data from the GMC shows that over 80% of cases reported to them for inappropriate or irresponsible prescribing are concluded without any formal action. These results are not surprising, and we believe that questions of fitness to practice should be reserved for the most serious issues.’
A spokesperson for the GMC said: ‘Independent research commissioned by the GMC published in 2012 found that 1 in 20 GP prescriptions sampled contained an error but that severe errors are rare. But, when they do happen they can have serious consequences; however, if they are one-offs, unlikely to be repeated and the doctor recognises the impact of their error, they do not require us to take fitness to practise action to protect future patients.’
GMC reviewing its investigations
The GMC has made a concerted effort to look at its investigations process. Earlier this year, it announced that doctors who have mental health problems will be spared from full GMC investigations ‘wherever possible’.
The new proposals were designed to make its fitness-to-practise process more ‘sensitive to the needs of vulnerable doctors’, following recommendations by Professor Louis Appleby – who was appointed by the GMC in December last year to carry out an independent review of its fitness-to-practise (FTP) process.
They come after Pulse has published a series of articles about the pressure that GMC procedures put on vulnerable doctors, including a report that found that 28 doctors had died by suicide while under investigation and that 13 additional doctors died while the regulator contemplated action. Another study showed that complaints against doctors ‘may do more overall harm than good’.